Today bulldozers eviscerated the sunken plaza at Citicorp Center, eliminating its late modern fountain and plaza, one of the last surviving works by Hideo Sasaki’s firm in New York.
The destruction of the fountain is tied to renovation plans for the public spaces that surround Citicorp, the late 70s tower at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street distinguished by its angled top and four silvery legs. At its base, welcoming commuters to and from the subway, sat a stepped concrete plaza and fountain designed by Sasaki principals Masao (Mas) Kinoshita and Stuart Dawson. The Landmark’s Preservation Commission (LPC) designation report calls the fountain out as a historic feature, which signals a degree of protection. In this case, though, changes to the designated plaza were approved without the public’s input.
Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of advocacy and education nonprofit The Cultural Landscape Foundation, walked by the plaza today and sent a video of the demolition to The Architect’s Newspaper, below:
Though shocking to those used to seeing the fountain on their commute, the bulldozer was in the picture months ago. Last year owner-developer Boston Properties hired Gensler’s New York office to produce a new (and flatter) plaza that met requirements for its POPS status, one of the city’s hundreds of privately owned public spaces that developers erected to build taller than zoning allowed. Here and elsewhere, the Department of City Planning regulates POPS; it requires part of the Citicorp POPS to include a fountain, and a fixed number of chairs and trees, among other amenities. The agency leaves all aesthetic and historical concerns to Landmarks.
Rendering for redesigned plaza at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. (Courtesy Gensler)
In this case, there is nothing original or historic about the new plaza Landmarks okayed. The approvals process for the plaza re-do was done by the letter of the law but not its spirit: Through a series of behind-the-scenes approvals, the public was deprived of the opportunity to weigh in on permanent changes to a public space.
“When I see what has happened to the landscape architecture at Citicorp,” Birnbaum said, “all I can think is ‘Who dropped the ball?’ How could a project like that go through Landmarks? How could a significant work of landscape architecture be destroyed and rendered tabula rasa?'”
Some in the preservation community were just as displeased, with failure a running theme.
“This news profoundly depressing. It’s a failure on the part of Boston Properties—a failure of imagination and taste—to demolish a one-of-a-kind late modern water sculpture. They had something of incalculable value,” said preservation activist Theodore Grunewald. He believes the stewardship of the historic property, too, was lacking. “It’s mostly, though, a failure of [LPC chair] Meenakshi Srinivasan and LPC staff for cynically abdicating their responsibility to protect and defend a designated landmark.” (At the last public Citicorp hearing, many Landmarks commissioners seemed surprised that the fountain’s fate was pre-determined.)
“This is a failure of civic governance,” said Christabel Gough, of the Society for the Architecture of the City. “Millions of New Yorkers enjoyed passing Sasaki’s cool cascade, a fountain beside a busy subway station—now smashed by philistine investors.” The Society is a historic preservation advocacy group that regularly testifies before the LPC. At Citicorp’s last public hearing, in March 2017, Gough maintained that the plaza’s steps and angles, complemented by the geometry of the fountain, are essential to the experience of the site at street level, especially in relation to the tower’s angled top.
Is there a lesson in this loss, a way forward through the wreckage?
There might be. Gensler itself is leading the way at a nearby building, Kevin Roche and John Dinkerloo’s nearby Ford Foundation headquarters, completed in 1967. At that project, Birnbaum pointed to what he believes is a sensitive treatment of the plant-filled atrium as a foil to the Citicorp plaza, which will soften the plaza’s deliberate angles with flowerbeds and a subdued fountain.
Grunewald believes the fountain’s loss boils down to transparency. “This was an opaque process. Further evidence of Landmarks’s subservience to New York City’s development community. Boston Properties got what they wanted, at the expense of the public. This is a tragic loss of one of New York’s best public works of art.”
AN is planning a follow-up story on what happened at Citicorp, because the editors believe the approvals process that led to the fountain’s destruction deserves explanation beyond the scope of this article. Stay tuned.